Now at the helm of national power, Oromo elites need to behave like representatives of a majority group.
Like many regions across Ethiopia, lawlessness and violence have been pervasive in Oromia over the last four years. Thousands of innocent civilians, mostly Amhara and other minorities—and also Oromos—have been killed.
In recent months alone, hundreds of ethnic Amharas have been massacred in West Wellega Zone of the region.
In part, the violence is the result of the intra-Oromo power struggle between the major political groups such as the Oromo Prosperity Party, the Oromo Federalist Congress, the Oromo Liberation Army, and factions within them. Also, the elite power struggle and the massacres associated with it are rooted in Oromo nationalism.
In comparison to its Tigrayan, Sidama, Somali, and Amhara counterparts, Oromo nationalism is arguably the oldest in Ethiopia, tracing its origins back to, at least, the 1960s.
However, it evolved into an organized political ideology in the subsequent decade with the establishment of the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) in 1973 and has, despite occasional turbulence and setbacks, remained a potent force in Ethiopian politics.
Of its many successes, the ascension of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed to the highest echelon of power in April 2018 is perhaps the most prominent.
The course of Oromo nationalism has been flip-flopping between establishing an independent Oromia nation and securing the right to self-determination for the Oromo people within a democratized, federal Ethiopia. Even today, there is no consensus among Oromo elites on this point.
Assimilation and colonization
The history of the Oromo is one of the most contested issues in Ethiopia and it is this very contestation that largely forms the foundation of Oromo nationalism.
Most Oromo nationalists subscribe to the view that the history of the Oromo is marked by cultural, political, and social assimilation and subjugation. Some even go as far as claiming that Oromos have been subjected to “colonialism” by the Amhara-Tigray Ethiopian empire.
The narrative goes like this: there was an Oromo nation that had its own social and political structure, which had continued to exist as a somewhat centralized, organized polity. Nonetheless, this changed in the 19th century when it was forcefully and brutally annexed into the Abyssinian empire by the colonizer Emperor Menelik II.
The Gadaa system that is still functional in some parts of Oromia is presented as evidence of Oromos’ organized, democratic, and civilized past.
It is true that Oromia has been the origin of an indigenous democracy that has been practiced for centuries under the auspices of the Gadaa system.
However, there is no recorded history showing that this mode of administration was uniformly practiced by all Oromos.
In fact, except for the common linguistic denominator, which itself has local dialects, the Oromo people have historically exhibited little in common when it comes to culture, forms of organization, and mode of governance.
Each clan and sub-clan developed its own distinct features depending on its locality. The story of an ‘Oromo nation’, which places Oromia as a sort of independent, cohesive, and homogenous political polity is thus more of a recent construct of political imagination than a historical reality.
The history of marginalization and alienation is also not as simple as Oromo nationalists portray it.
Like many other ethnic groups, especially those in the periphery, Oromos have been on the receiving end of marginalization and oppression. However, they have also committed atrocities and oppressed others.
Among various instances are the ‘great Oromo expansion’ of the 16th and 17th centuries, which was accompanied by assimilation policies, massacres, and cultural destruction, and the series of brutal campaigns by Oromo warriors from Wellega invading parts of Gojjam in the 19th century.
Accordingly, Oromo nationalists’ tendency to present Oromos as always being on the receiving end of an unending cycle of violence is incorrect.
What made Oromos lose their cultural, and to some degree political, dominance in Ethiopia is their loss of the ‘final’ battle in the 19th Century to Emperor Menelik II.
Otherwise, in Ethiopia’s long history, Oromos were not consistently oppressed. There were times when they were victorious and dominant—often inflicting widespread violence on others—and there were times when they lost, followed by them being subjected to violence and marginalization.
One consequence of the Oromo nationalists’ narrative of marginalization and indigenous colonization is a sense of victimhood and the accompanying disposition of resistance towards anything Ethiopian, which now is at the heart of Oromo nationalism.
At the core of Oromo nationalism lies the belief that Ethiopia is an empire forced on the Oromo people from outside, something that is inherently anathema and inimical to Oromos.
The colonial thesis developed by Oromo elites suggests that Ethiopia and Oromia are mutually exclusive, and thus one should perish for the other to thrive.
As Gemechu Megersa, an Oromo academic, once said, “There is only one big problem for Ethiopia and that is Oromia, and there is one big problem for Oromia and that is Ethiopia”.
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As a result, being an Oromo and a leader of Ethiopia is rather difficult. The moment an Oromo becomes a leader of Ethiopia, he is immediately accused of betraying the Oromo cause and is effectively disowned as a sell-out.
This is what Abiy has faced and what other promising Oromo leaders are likely to face in the future the moment they assume higher roles at the federal level.
As a result of their deep resentment towards Ethiopia, Oromo nationalists also find it easier to reject, instead of embrace, a country in which Oromos are a majority.
Consequently, today, Oromo nationalists are among the few elite groups in the world who represent an ethnic majority in a country whose top leaders also belong to their ethnic group and yet consistently stand against the central authority.
The anti-Ethiopian narrative underpinning Oromo nationalism has inflicted a significant toll not only on ordinary Oromos but also on the ideology itself.
Fifty years after its emergence, the nationalist movement made no significant progress in achieving its goal of creating an independent Oromia or controlling Ethiopia’s central power.
Almost all previous Ethiopian governments used the anti-Ethiopian sentiment among Oromo nationalists to ostracize and quash them by all means, and, often with the widespread support of other Ethiopians, exclude them from the country’s power center.
As a result, thousands of young Oromos sacrificed their lives for the cause of ‘independent Oromia’ in vain.
This nonetheless changed in 2016 when, for the first time, some Oromo nationalist elites who had realized the ineffectiveness of the anti-Ethiopia path advanced a new version of Oromo nationalism that ostensibly embraced Ethiopia.
The famous statement “Ethiopiawinet sus new” (Ethiopianism/being Ethiopian/ is like an addiction) by Lemma Megersa, one of the leading architects of the new movement, defied the sacrilege in Oromo political culture of advancing Ethiopianism.
This helped Oromo nationalists in being well-received by other Ethiopians and helped in their aspiration to control central power.
In April 2018, after two years of sustained public protests and pan-Ethiopianist gestures by Oromo elites, Abiy took power. However, the euphoria of controlling central power was short-lived, and soon began the challenge of an Oromo leading Ethiopia. Radical Oromo nationalists started to attack Abiy as a ‘neftegna’ agent and worked to erode his legitimacy in his Oromo constituency.
Sadly, the Oromo elites who seized power opportunistically have also been visibility ill-prepared for the position.
After they took over the highest echelons of economic and political power, Oromo elites kept on playing the politics of resistance against the center they now control in a counterproductive, self-defeating manner.
While they themselves are the ones controlling the central government, they continue to act as an opposition group and raise the sword against their own throne.
Oromos, of course, have some unanswered questions such as the official recognition of Afaan Oromoo as a federal working language and Oromia’s “special interest” in Addis Abeba—issues that the government appears to be working on.
Yet, it is rather puzzling that Oromo nationalists refuse to appreciate the progress made, for example, when it comes to Oromos securing their fair share of political and economic power in the country. It is also shocking to see the distance that they have gone to estrange and remove by force the federal government by aligning themselves with other groups such as the TPLF, which they accused of having oppressed Oromos in the past.
For an independent observer, the power struggle among Oromo nationalists doesn’t look like a fight between brothers but rather one between arch enemies of two different ethnic groups.
It is also sad to see Oromo nationalists proudly talking about their region being home to Gadaa democracy, and yet they cannot resolve their differences through peaceful means.
Some Oromo nationalist factions also appear to have adopted a strategy of cleansing Oromia of other groups, both to win their intra-ethnic power struggle and also perhaps to realize the long-dreamt homogenous, independent Oromia.
Some thus found it convenient to kill ethnic minorities, mainly Amharas, in their region.
Looking at these atrocities, one would be forced to wonder whether Oromo nationalists really understand their leverage.
The presence of ethnic Amharas in Oromia, for example, has been considerable political leverage for Oromo elites. If it were not for the vulnerability of Amharas in Oromia, Oromo elites would have perhaps been unable to seize central power in 2018.
Amharas were second in line and had a legitimate claim to assume the premiership following the resignation of former Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn. Among others, it was a concern for the safety of their people, who are found dispersed all over Oromia, that forced them to let Oromo elites assume the position without much contestation.
Accordingly, as the killing and displacing of Amharas in Oromia continues, Oromo elites will face tougher and uncompromising Amharas at the national level, and the likelihood of a full-blown civil war becomes real.
One of the building blocks of Oromo nationalism is the demand for self-administration and ‘true federalism’.
Autonomy on the basis of ethnic identity is touted particularly by some Oromo nationalists as the panacea to preserve Oromo national interests.
However, many non-Oromos interpret the insistence on ethnic federalism as the non-negotiable solution to the Oromo problem as a sinister attempt to achieve two goals.
The first is to have exclusive control of the center, as Addis Abeba—the economic and political capital of the country—is believed to be part of Oromia. The demand for self-administration in this way simply means a desire to have control over 60 percent of the country’s economy without competition from others.
The second goal is perceived as a means of creating a springboard to prepare for the long-desired formation of an independent Oromia, in case the desire to remake Ethiopia in the Oromo elites’ own image collapses.
Consequently, Oromo nationalism is always viewed with suspicion by other Ethiopians, and Oromo elites are doing nothing to dispel this suspicion.
Indeed, in the world of most Oromo nationalists, Ethiopia is like an optional and secondary item that can be forsaken or extirpated anytime for Oromia’s interest.
This, of course, would make sense if their self-interest is not inextricably linked to the interests of other Ethiopians and Oromia’s very survival as a polity was not dependent on the very existence of Ethiopia.
Oromo nationalism conveniently disregards the fact that Oromia is geographically disadvantaged and surrounded by many other ethnic groups, which in the absence of Ethiopia will certainly fight against it.
As much as it is its leverage, Oromia’s location at the center is also its primary weakness, where in the absence of the Ethiopian state, border disputes with other groups around it compromise its viability as a sovereign state.
Oromo nationalism also views Oromia as an island of richness where everything needed for survival is found abundantly.
The outcome of this mistaken belief of self-sufficiency is that Oromo youth are made to adopt the simplistic view that all of the nation’s problems are imposed from outside; the cause of every problem is externalized, even those almost endemic to Oromo politics.
The youth are effectively made a prisoner of the past and barred from aspiring to life beyond Oromia. Their ability to imagine working, investing, and prospering outside of Oromia is severely constrained.
Another emerging trend in Oromo politics is a desire to possess everything, be it the country’s political power, history, or resources. This is true despite the fact that the anti-Ethiopian state ideology is still intact among some of the most influential elites.
It, therefore, appears that Oromo nationalism at this point is in a state of confusion: its proponents are stuck in the past but also want to control the present and the future.
Oromo nationalists dream of carving out a country called Oromia from Ethiopia, but at the same time seek to reconfigure Ethiopia in their own image. They disown whatever is Ethiopian, including Oromos at the helm of power, but also fight against the center.
Most importantly, Oromo nationalism has failed to cross the river of resentment, resistance, and retaliation, and thus remains a captive of its history and successes.
It is thus time for Oromo nationalism to undergo a major shift and align itself with today’s reality. Its protagonists should understand that one cannot be a rebel force and at the center of power simultaneously.
They should also realize that other non-Oromo Ethiopians are increasingly fed up with the unabating resistance mood of Oromo elites and their politics of resentment, which is fast draining the well of empathy that they have had towards the Oromo cause.
For their own sake and the rest of Ethiopians, Oromo elites should therefore change their attitude and do what is expected of a majority group ruling a big country.
The rest of Ethiopians want to see Oromo leaders acting like the true children of Oromia—the land of diversity, justice, and indigenous democracy.
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This is the author’s viewpoint. However, Ethiopia Insight will correct clear factual errors.
Main photo: Celebrating the return of the Oromo Liberation Front in Addis Ababa; September 15, 2018; Petterik Wiggers.
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